October 5, 2014
They walked into the store at 7 am, her, very young, very pregnant in her powder blue pajama bottoms decorated with teddy bears and a blue tee shirt stretched over her watermelon-shaped baby bump; her mate, his jeans with no ass to support them falling down, his dirty long hair held in check by a dirty ball cap, his scraggly beard black as coal, the heels of his work boots worn to the nub on the outsides.
They worked the store and piled items on the counter: two packages of Twinkies, two of Uncle Ray’s barbecue potato chips, two packaged sandwiches, two 24 ounce bottles of Mountain Dew, two packs of Indian Spirit (“100 % organic tobacco!”) cigarettes, and for sir, a tin of chewing tobacco. He took ten minutes on that last item, as the clerk held up can after can and he waved them away, until he chose the one with the yellow swatch on the side.
They might have been 19, but they looked much older, as lost folks who live on junk and alcohol and tobacco are wont to do. She was in love—she would have to be, given that her baby was about to pop. Her mate held in his emotions, a river rat commandment, showing some affection for his can of chew, fondling it, anticipating the coming satisfaction.
In this very store, two days ago, I sat with my .51 cent coffee and was joined by J., a high school-age young woman who was kicked out of school because she wouldn’t be vaccinated. “I’ve had the chicken pox—why should I be vaccinated against what I already had?”
J. is achingly pretty; her smile outdoes the sun by tenfold. She practically lives in the store; she can’t stay in her house alone during the day, so she drinks coffee alternating with Mountain Dew, and greets customers and tells stories, mostly about drugs, how Alton is a hotbed of drugs.
When I hadn’t yet met her, when she was an anonymous teen angel, I admired her perfect rear end. Weeks ago, my father instincts kicked in; now I wish I could protect her—the lost girl. Her sweetness belies her culture: she terrifies me.
The thin-as-clothes poles lost siblings came in that morning, getting out of the rain as they waited for the school bus. They wore pink tee shirts for breast cancer. They sipped Cokes and ate candy for breakfast.
They might be freshmen in high school. The boy is gender confused, smart as a whip. He and his sister (they look like sisters) have been abandoned; their parents are in jail, so they take care of each other. He comes to the closed store at night, searching in the outside can with the lid for used cigarette butts. He’ll smoke filters if he has to.
Early in the morning, the store has a line of lost commuters at the counter with giant Styrofoam cups of soda and glazed doughnuts wrapped in paper. Mountain Dew is the preferred drink, accompanied by Red Bull chasers. People take as much time selecting energy drinks to compliment their sodas as the first boy-daddy did with his chew.
A lot of the lost kids and the lost moms use food stamps for their candy and drinks, for their baby’s bottle filled with red soft drink. Racists currently jump on the black folks of Ferguson, Missouri, the “welfare queens” who dominate the so-called rioters, but they’re blind to their white kin Mountain Dew addicts and skeletal meth addicts, the kids with chews in their jaws, with beef jerky straws jammed into their back pockets, with nicotine-stained fingers and ashen faces, the girls delivery systems for caffeine and nicotine and sugar for their babies in or out of the womb.
J. works the line. Women light up when they talk to her. Men don’t want to talk to her; it’s hard to objectify an ass if the owner of the ass greets you like you’re her grandfather. The scary men are the ones with dead eyes. They look at J.’s ass as if it were a pork loin. They look hungry.
And on they come: the exhausted guys in hard hats working the electric lines; the tree trimmers with scars and callused hands; the mostly obese nurses in scrubs coming on or off shift, cigarettes stuck behind their ears for easy access; the parade of handicapped with their parking stickers and walkers, buying morning half pints of cinnamon-flavored whiskey; the school kids with sodas and Kit Kat bars; the professionals with their giant sodas, looking neither left nor right, standing out like sore thumbs, wanting nothing to do with the riff-raff but just as addicted, must get to St. Louis; the long haul truckers uniformly friendly, caffeine starved.
The lost park and smoke, stub out the butts, get their fixes, light up fresh cigs and speed off.
And the lost boy comes at night, the lost sister standing on the shoulder of the highway while her brother gathers the butts, touches the lips of strangers, the germs of bodily fluids—mostly spit and snot.
If he’s lucky.